Jerry Stahl, author of the memoir "Permanent Midnight," is known for his rendering of the darkest corners of a drug-fueled spiral — in his case, this included writing scripts for the alien-on-the-couch TV show "Alf." But his world is more serene now: He spoke to Jacket Copy on the balcony of his hilltop home, the quiet interrupted only by his adopted dog barking at the occasional too-close bird.
Recently, he's been on tour to promote his new book, "Pain Killers." He's also contributed to the L.A. Times serial novel "Money Walks" and will appear at the L.A. Times Festival of Books on Sunday, April 26.
In "Pain Killers," Stahl's dope-prone private eye Manny Rubert from "Plainclothes Naked" is sent to San Quentin by a powerful manipulator named Zell — Stahl growls that that any resemblance to a media mogul is intended. In the book, Manny's not posing as an inmate but as a drug counselor, trying to find out whether a ninetysomething inmate is, in fact, Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele.
Jacket Copy: Of all the Nazi criminals, why Mengele?
Stahl: I was sort of fueled by this free-floating rage at the time, the Bush years, all the stuff being done in our name — however that might sound now in the pre-disappointment Obama years. I stumbled on the fact that much of the really heinous scientific experiments were paid for by American families like the Rockefellers, for example. It was that same sort of click of recognition where you know, here we are living in this country with this one myth about who and what we are, when the reality is this other thing. So there was that kind of parallel; however conscious or unconscious, it was a rage-fueled book. A rage-fueled decision to write.
It was fueled by the fact that this is what America was, which was mortifying to contemplate. Similarly, we were living in a time when the stuff that was being done in our name was also just disgusting.
JC: Do you really think that the extent to which he did these horrifying things America has continued in that vein? Do you think we’re that bad?
Stahl: I don’t think you can – it’s not about the one-downs-manship of they chopped off three fingers, we chopped off a hangnail. But there’s no doubt that we’ve been doing prison experiments on African Americans and anyone unfortunate enough to be in there for centuries in this country. It’s not just Tuskegee; there’s plenty of other examples. I wrote something about this a couple of years ago. They have evidence of chemical companies testing pesticides in the houses of impoverished families in the housing units of some ghetto somewhere and paying off the mothers to see what the physical reaction would be for the children. There was a big lawsuit. Nobody’s hands are clean. This superiority that we kind of strut around with as America – is not necessarily earned. And that’s something I wanted to pursue in the book.
JC: How does using a detective allow you to explore that?
Stahl: I wanted a way in, with a guy that was finding out as the reader, and as I, was finding out. There’s a certain kind of classic trope of using Virgil down in the underworld, however pretentious you want to take it, but there is that level. You want a guy to take you through.
It wasn’t I woke up one day and decided I wanted to be Mickey Spillane.
JC: Some writers have a problem putting pressure on their characters, putting their characters in difficult situations —
Stahl: They do?
JC: Maybe it’s a graduate school thing.
Stahl: I never heard that. Tell me. Is that an issue? Like they’re little children?
JC: Like you become fond of them and you don’t want to put them in harm’s way. ...
Stahl: Oh, it’s like having a baby and pushing it in front of traffic.
JC: Yeah. It seems like you take a bit of sadistic pleasure — you put Manny in horrible situation after horrible situation.
Stahl: I don’t really ascribe to the parental view of authorship, that these characters are like my little children. It’s more about trying to describe certain, ah, emotional and adrenal states of mind. And not really about putting preschool between two hard covers. I like that idea; it just never even occurred to me. I don’t think I’m the only one who writes characters who are dire – I mean, life’s pretty dire.
JC: You went to Columbia.
Stahl: Don’t throw that in my face.
What happened at Columbia — after the jump.